Berlin Study Abroad Seminar: Plattenbau vs. the New Communal. Mass Housing, Alternative Dwelling Models, and a theory of Shared Spaces in Germany

With equal emphasis on historical and theoretical analysis, this seminar investigates the potential offered by various forms of historic alternative dwelling, and new ways to conceptualize mass housing.

At a time when major crisis – including the urgent need for affordable housing (at a rate of 6000 units per year in Berlin alone), global warming and the 2008 mortgage crisis – are directly linked to problematic dwelling forms, this seminar starts with an introduction to Germany’s history of collective dwelling and mass housing since 1900.

Students will investigate six of Berlin’s most significant mass housing projects -Gartenstadt Falkenberg, Siedlung Schillerpark, Großsiedlung Britz, Wohnstadt Carl Legien, Weiße Stadt and Großsiedlung Siemensstadt – all built between 1913 and 1934, but also those post-war city (West Berlin) development initiatives, IBA (International Building Exhibition) 1957 and IBA 1984, both largely defined and influenced by cold war ideology. Contrastingly, students will investigate the East Berlin (and block)-German Plattenbau (or prefabricated plate building) technology and planning as a radical tool for mass housing.

Students will gain broad insight into historic examples, current experiments and alternative models for housing – beginning with Bauhaus, seen not as a canonical style, but rather as a model for an experimental community with new forms of collective dwelling and production. All of these examples demonstrate aggregate-housing systems integrated into urban contexts – including works by Frei Otto, Werner Wirsing, or Werner Düttmann. These systems are flexible, open to growth, and can be easily adapted, creating private and public realms beyond the usual spatial categories, and redefining the relationship between private and communal space. The seminar may also involve additional visits to sites outside of Berlin.

Students will be introduced to architects Karl Heinz Adler, an eminent figure in the design of public spaces and mass housing in the former GDR, and Werner Wirsing, the architect of Munich’s 1972 student Olympic village, and discuss with them strategies for simple, economically sustainable, and ecologically responsible dwelling, and the creation of new social spaces, urban interventions, new uses of public space, and activities to engage local communities.

The seminar aims to instrumentalize research activities toward new forms of collective dwelling and mass housing, and to speculate where this research might lead, including new typologies for density.
Students’ research should demonstrate how these systems were conceived, how they generated their own logic of repetition using stacking and aggregation, and also how they were instrumentalized – under what technological economic and political circumstances they were realized and what production systems were deployed.

Considering Berlin’s new building communities, students should investigate what future dwelling types might mean and how this might be affected by demographics, different types of users, changing live/work models, the need for flexibility, and the interstices of private and public domains, as those divisions become increasingly blurred. How do mandates for sustainability become technological solutions as well as formal, spatial, and material ones? What are the forces that might drive these new types? How might we now situate ourselves in a world where global capital flows and speculation are the dominant driver for housing questions, and speculate on possible new housing forms that are more inclusive in response to economics, sustainability, demographics, and radically changing life styles in a city as diverse and emergent as Berlin?